South Carolina wide receiver Bruce Ellington, cousin of Cardinals running back Andre Ellington, breaks away for a touchdown during a game against Kentucky.
When running back Andre Ellington was taken in the sixth round of last April's NFL draft, his high school offensive coordinator, Tony Cox, turned on the computer and did some immediate online shopping.
There was no Cardinals attire available in Ellington's home town of Moncks Corner, S.C., so Cox went on Amazon.com to buy his oldest son, Gavin, a backpack, a hat and a sweatshirt adorned with the team logo. To this day, the 7-year-old proudly wears his Cardinals gear to school in support of his favorite player. But soon, the choice will become trickier.
"Dad, what team is Bruce going to be on?" Gavin asked recently. "I'm going to have to get that hat, too."
Andre Ellington took the NFL by storm as a rookie, beginning as a little-known backup and finishing as the league's leader in yards per carry. Growing up, though, Andre wasn't even considered the most athletic person in his family. That honor was bestowed on his younger cousin, Bruce Ellington, a star in football but also one of the state's best basketball players.
"He even had some skills in baseball, too," Andre said. "Bruce's talent is unique."
The cousins grew up under the same roof until Andre was 11 and Bruce was 9. They would watch sports together on television and then race to the backyard to emulate the action. Bruce was the talkative one, Andre more reserved, but both had an insatiable desire to compete. In one hardcore drill, they weren't allowed to juke, so they would run
head-on into each other.
They attended Berkeley High School in Moncks Corner, playing on the varsity football team together when Andre was the senior running back and Bruce a sophomore receiver in 2007.
Andre's vision and athleticism made him a hot-shot recruit, and he chose to play for Clemson, where he ran for 3,436 yards in his four-year career before getting drafted by the Cardinals. Bruce also garnered interest from BCS schools, but programs weren't entirely sure whether to offer him at defensive back or wide receiver. As the football coaches waffled, South Carolina men's basketball coach Darrin Horn put on the full-court press.
Ellington verbally committed to play basketball for the Gamecocks during his junior year of high school, cooling the interest of the football programs. As a senior, he moved to quarterback and led Berkeley to its first state championship since 1996.
"He committed early (to basketball), so that turned people off," Cox said. "If he would have just said, 'I'm playing football,' he would have had a ton of offers. Mr. Football in South Carolina that year was (current 49ers running back) Marcus Lattimore, but Bruce was second. Bruce had a phenomenal year. It was a tight, tight race."
The summer basketball circuit allowed Ellington to travel and bond with teammates, which increased his love for the game. Detractors said he wasn't good enough to play in a high-major conference, which made him commit to the sport even more.
"When they said that, I was like, 'Man, I can do this,'" he said.
Ellington was trumpeted as the crown jewel of the Gamecocks' 2010 hoops recruiting class, and he averaged 12.8 points and 3.2 assists as a freshman. Even though it was a solid start, sub-6-foot point guards are a rarity at the next level, so the whole time Cox was in his ear about a return to the gridiron.
"I never stopped getting on him about football," Cox said. "There are only a handful of people who knew his potential. The things he did on the football field, you can't explain. When he was in space, he would do things that just made your jaw drop. I knew that there was a higher percentage (chance) to play in the NFL with his type of size. You don't see a lot of point guards in the NBA at 5-9 but you see defensive backs, wide receivers, punt returners, kick returners. I told him, 'You have the athletic ability to do it.'"
Before his freshman basketball season began, Bruce went to a football game and watched the Gamecocks beat No. 1 Alabama. It planted the seed, and in the spring of 2011, he told Cox of his desire to strap on the football cleats again. Cox immediately got on the phone with South Carolina wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier, Jr., and the wheels were set in motion for Ellington's two-sport college career.
"I knew he was going to do it," Andre said. "I just didn't know when."
Bruce ended up playing three seasons each of basketball and football at South Carolina, averaging 11.2 points and 3.0 assists on the hardwood while catching 106 passes for 1,586 yards and 16 touchdowns at receiver.
It wasn't until a standout bowl game against Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl this January, though, that Ellington knew he was ready to forgo his final season of eligibility and enter the NFL draft. He caught six passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns in the 34-24 victory and is now projected as a third-round pick.
"That was the game that kind of sealed the deal," Bruce said. "I was debating whether I was going to stay or come out. After I had that game, I knew for sure I was gone."
Andre and Bruce played each other twice in college, which was quite the spectacle in South Carolina, and are on a collision course to match up in the NFL. And while it's a longshot, there is the possibility that they become teammates next year if Bruce is selected by the Cardinals in the May draft. Andre Roberts is a free agent, so the team will be looking to find a new No. 3 wide receiver.
Although Andre Ellington hasn't gone as far as to tout his cousin's abilities to the front office, he said Bruce would be a great fit within the scheme of coach Bruce Arians. If it were to happen, Bruce said he wants to wear No. 83, a mirror image of Andre's No. 38.
"It's certainly good bloodlines," said Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim, when asked if the team would be more apt to draft Bruce following Andre's success.
Regardless of where he goes, Bruce will soon be an NFL player just like his older cousin, quite the leap from the backyard tussles of the 1990s.
"We played together all our life, through high school, I played against him in college," Bruce said. "We push each other to be the best we can be. The things he does, I look at. I'm going home right now to watch his film, to learn from what he does. He's a fast running back and he's a great receiver. And I'm trying to do all of it, too."